What Catholic evangelists can learn from General Petraeus

Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan General David Petraeus walks on Forward Base Wilson (Getty Images)

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has been making waves in Catholic circles this year. As readers probably know, it advocates Christians looking to our monastic past for a means to propagate the faith amidst growing secularisation. Dreher convincingly argues that only by clustering in intentional Christian communities will Christians maintain islands of faith strong enough to withstand the corrosion of the neo-pagan culture that increasingly surrounds us.

I have been reflecting on Dreher’s Benedict Option in my new role in evangelization in the Archdiocese of Southwark. Pope St John Paul II famously called for a ‘New Evangelization’ that would be “new in its ardour, new in its methods and new in its expression.” As a proposal for ‘re-evangelization of the baptised’ Dreher’s monastic vision seems to answer these criteria.

A further parallel: many years ago I wrote a Bachelor’s thesis on General David Petraeus’s 2007 ‘surge’ counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq that defied all expectations at the time and significantly improved the security situation in the war-torn country. Iraqi civilian deaths declined from nearly 3,000 in December 2006 to under 500 in January 2009.

Though Petraeus’s campaign is remembered as a surge in the number of troops committed to the war it was as much a ‘surge of ideas’. By 2006, the US military was clearly losing the war as horrific sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia insurgents escalated and US forces became increasingly isolated in giant Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). These FOBs were in effect pieces of America, with Starbucks and McDonalds and little daily exposure to the chaos engulfing the country beyond the wire. From these fortresses, US forces would sally forth to patrol through a neighbourhood in heavily armoured vehicles for an hour, probably get shot at and retreat to leave the insurgents in control of the area for the other 23 hours of the day.

General Petraeus initiated a new counterinsurgency strategy in 2007 to reverse this deteriorating situation, whereby US troops left the safety of their FOBs and instead lived amongst the Iraqi people in small ‘combat outposts’ (COPs) in groups of just 30-200 men spread throughout city neighbourhoods. Slowly, this change in strategy began to build a sense of trust and security amongst the local Iraqi people who Petraeus knew were the key objective for both the insurgents and the US. The COPs acted as ‘ink spots’ that created refuges of stability and order in chaotic Iraqi cities. Their success and multiplication slowly allowed a semblance of peace to return to the streets.

Despite the dubious ethics of American military intervention in the Middle East, I found myself reflecting on the surprising parallels between this counterinsurgency effort and the new evangelisation. Like Petraeus’s ink spot strategy, one of our tasks is to support parishes in deepening the ‘sense of security’ for Catholics surrounded by a growingly hostile culture. Previous reliance on what has been called ‘cultural Catholicism’ is no longer enough. Like the pre-surge Americans who rode into neighbourhoods for an hour and then left civilians to the mercy of the insurgents, the hour Catholics spend at Mass is not in itself enough to sustain and spread the faith, given that the environment people live in no longer supports living a Christian life, and is in fact actively corrosive.

Literature of the New Evangelization emphasises the need for Catholics to move beyond ‘Sunday Catholicism’ and build a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that permeates their daily lives. Only by realising the universal call to missionary discipleship will today’s lay Catholics recover what St John Paul II called a ‘living sense of the faith’, withstand the liquidising effects of modernity and in turn begin to re-evangelise the lapsed. We can create our own outposts of stability, like the Benedictine monasteries and COPs, by living our faith more deeply in community and centring our life on the mission of the Gospel.

These communities will arouse non-Catholics’ trust, curiosity and eventual ‘seeking’ for such peace and stability in their own lives where post-modern culture provides no answers. The analogy I have drawn has its limits: clearly the challenges we face are very different to the US military in Baghdad – indifference rather than an IED is our main problem. Nor do I want to suggest that we are in a war-situation against armed opponents.

Like Iraq though, the battle we face is for peoples’ hearts and minds. Catholic evangelists must remember Blessed Pope Paul VI’s exhortation that “Through… wordless witness… Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi)

By renewing the vitality and vibrancy of Catholic community life we can equip Catholics for missionary discipleship and nurture the ‘new springtime of the Church’ that Pope St John Paul II envisaged all those years ago.

Theo Howard is Evangelization Coordinator at the Centre for Catholic Formation, Tooting Bec